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Seeds used for Bodhi beads in China

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    Humans use seeds (include the fruits with pericarps cannot be easily removed, commonly called ‘seeds’) in many ways. Seeds are colorful, durable, and easy to access, so humans have drilled and strung seeds into necklaces and bracelets for thousands of years. The oldest seed ornaments were discovered in Africa and can be dated to the Middle Stone Age (280,000 to 45,000 years ago). Moreover, due to the variety of medicinal and edible properties of plants and trees, people placed high value on this type of vegetation, and this feeling has continued to modern times. Some people endow beads with specific meaning for averting disaster, developing wisdom, and soothing and relaxing.

    Bodhi beads are Buddhist prayer items that have been traditional tools for counting while reciting a mantra, as prayer beads have been used in other world religions. The Bodhi beads are called Pu Ti Zi in Chinese: Pu Ti means Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), and Zi means seed; but Bodhi beads are not made of the seeds of a Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa). The name Pu Ti Zi first appeared in the early medical text, ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’, which referred to the seeds of Coix lacryma-jobi. In addition, seeds of Sapindus delavayi and Sapindus tomentosus were called Pu Ti Zi or ‘Bodhi seeds’ in Yunnan. In modern times, ‘Bodhi seeds’ do not refer to any particular plant but instead refer generally to seeds and the fruits of various plants used to make prayer beads.

    Bodhi beads have an important position in Tibetan Buddhism and are very popular in Tibet (the Xizang Tibetan Autonomous Region). The culture of Bodhi beads spread throughout Tibet and other provinces of China, and there are dozens to hundreds of Bodhi beads with different meanings. Recently, people have begun to wear Bodhi beads as a kind of praying or blessing ornament, in addition to functioning as a prayer bead. The Bodhi bead culture has developed in China in the form of cultural supplies, such as writing brushes and ink sticks. Several ‘Bodhi seeds’ of similar size, shape, and pattern are strung into strings of prayer beads. People frequently touch the beads with their hands to make the beads luster like jade due to secretion from human skin. Moreover, the beads are carefully modified to protect from scarring in inappropriate temperature and humidity surroundings.

    Ethnobotanists study how plants are used for food and medicine but are also interested in plant adornments because non-mainstream use of plants can reflect relationships between cultures and (uses of) plants in other aspects. Surveys such as that conducted by Armstrong have shown that many botanical jewelries in different places were made by seeds and indicated the high value placed on the seeds. Over 165 plant species used for human adornment in India were identified and listed .

    Recently, there has been increasing interest in the commercial value of Bodhi beads, and many books about the culture of Bodhi beads have appeared in China. Although the books and related materials focus on the meaning of each kind of Bodhi bead, almost all publications ignore the question of which plant or plants produced the Bodhi seeds. The beads have been commonly described as ‘seeds of rare plants’, and this description has fostered a belief that the value of Bodhi beads is related to the scarcity of their sources and not to their aesthetic and cultural value. To help correct this misunderstanding, we investigated the plant sources of ‘Bodhi seeds’ or Pu Ti Zi and explored the culture values of Bodhi bead plants.



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